Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

"The Future" Is a Racket

There is no such thing as the future at which any particular political or cultural movement can be said to be aiming more than any other. "The future" is a mystification, usually a distraction, through which disavowed contemporary political commitments express themselves in the guise of tomorrow's dawn.

Progressives fight for freedom, not for "the future." "The future" is little more than a funhouse mirror-image of some parochial present. For progressives it is not "the future" but futurity that must remain in our sight. Futurity is novelty, it is an openness to differences, it is endless contestation, it is a welcoming in of many contrasting voices and demands, it is an embrace of contingency, it is an acceptance of uncertain outcomes as a price for inclusion. Futurity is just as ineradicable a dimension of any properly human freedom as democracy is, as social justice is, as development is, as rights and the rule of law are.

There is no tribe, no program, no teleological end, no organization, no chosen people, no official membership, no church, no avant-gard, no monolithic movement, no favored nation that holds futurity whole and entire in its hand or in its gaze. And whenever futurity is eclipsed in the progressive vision, the politics it advocates will settle soon enough into one among many other conservatisms hungry to prevail over difference.

This is not to say that particular progressives do not aim after discernible, concrete ends like a global basic income guarantee, universal health care, a global people's parliament, a global fair trade organization, universal suffrage, transparent governance and social administration, a robust human rights culture, morphological freedom, strengthening the institutions and protocols that yield scientific knowledge, lifelong education, training and therapy for all, sustainable prosperity and democratic technological development. Of course we do.

But the point for progressives will always be to enlist ever more collaborators in these good works in their difference, not to mobilize some monolithic zombie army to enact anyone's particular perfect plan to achieve some of these goals. That is not politics. At best it is administration. At worst, I fear, it is futurity wrapped in the straightjacket of some shabby version of "the future" somebody came up with somewhere.

"The future" is a racket, it has something to sell you: stock tips in what amounts to some sad get-rich scheme, or perhaps the promise of membership in some ideological movement that offers you belonging and a few commanding pieties to fill the hole where your freedom should be.

Technological development is overabundantly too complex to be accommodated within any singular framework, however marvellous or well-meaning. There are indefinitely many particular developmental outcomes that can be described as progressive, and they do not align into a seamless, coherent, consistent program. Progressives know that just as our present is a future from out of the past in which there are indefinitely many good things being done and remaining left to do, so too will the futures from out of our present be rich and contradictory in their promises and demands. Progressives must have more than vision and conviction and foresight, but the humility that arises from a recognition of the partiality of even the most reasonable perspective and an embrace of the democratic clash of opinions and desires in all its unpredictability, frustration, and awful glory. Futurity is incomparably more than "the future."

4 comments:

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Dale,

Your post looks like it's addressed to (or inspired by) a particular individual or group. Who is it? :)


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Michael Anissimov said...

Unfortunately, this might not be for you to decide. If it were possible to create a nuclear weapon that ignited the atmosphere, then the whole future (or lack thereof) would have lied with the researchers that created it and the government bodies which funded it. If a chimera virus is released and wipes out 90% of the human population, then in retrospect, we will say, "yes, the future was dependent on that action". If Khrushchev decided to slam through the American blockage and a nuclear conflict ensued, then he would have been held responsible for changing the future... etc. I think your point here is not actually that the future can't be changed, but that we can't see clearly in advance *who* can change it, and being convinced that we *personally* have influence over any particular future generally leads to more harm than good. But the latter message is hardly rhetorically aerodynamic, so you go for the former, right? (Of course, I have to respond when I feel that I'm being talked to practically directly ;)

Dale Carrico said...

To what does "this" refer, that you suppose I can "decide" about or not?

Plurality, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, is the law of the world.

The political, the world, in its phenomenological historicity, its presencing, its futurity -- that is to say, in its materializations -- is not a phenomenon susceptible as a "totality" (already a mystification) to decision. The world is the context in which decisions are intelligible as such in the first place.

"The Future" is a mystification that substitutes for the unpredictability of human action and the interminable plurality of irreconcilable human ends, which together constitute worldly futurity in its radical or at any rate ineradicable openness, a singular fantastic "outcome" at which the movement, the plan, the cognoscenti, the trend of politics or history or humanity or consciousness or some spontaneously unfolding order or logic or law is imagined to be aiming.

If you protest that some outcomes are predicted, some plans implemented, some differences reconciled, then of course I will agree that you are right and that this is all well and good. Promises are made, mistakes are forgiven, collaboration yields widely shared goods. Progress is possible and desirable, we arrive at various scientific, moral, ethical, esthetic, and political convictions that make worlds more worth living in.

But none of that will give you the coin to buy "the future" with.

"The future" is just one among innumerably many intellectual fantasies of annulling the political (and its futurity) altogether for some compelling stainless steel instrumentality or parochial moralism.

Of course actions have consequences for good and ill, for themselves and for untold others, known and unknown. Of course one desires some ends over others, of course one applies foresight to anticipated problems, of course one struggles to achieve concrete ends. Risk assessment is easily as key to any reasonable and progressive deliberative developmental model as multiple-stakeholder cost/benefit analysis is. The particular worries you register about WMD and about the need for caution are of course concerns I share, and about which I have written at length. Taken together, my columns Technological Freedom Versus Technological Terror and The Need for Fair Risk provide a beginning of the more systematic answer I would offer to address these shared worries of ours.

But the trajectory of development from any particular perspective (even one we might share) is an impoverished thing compared to the futurity of the world into which we have been thrown and which impels us interminably into political life. The deliberation through which we might strive to make development safer, more sustainable, and more fair is bigger than either of us, and the world with its futurity far bigger still, an open sea.

Oh, and be assured, I didn't have you in my mind in the least when I wrote this post.

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